Pep Guardiola said it; everyone else just thought it. On the eve of the final chapter in the four-game, 18-day clásico saga, one comment hit home more than any other. "It is," Guardiola said, "nearly over." A kind of tired, collective sigh of relief escaped. Had it not been for the fact that no one had the energy or enthusiasm, you might have expected the place to turn into an evangelical church, shouts of Amen! and Hallelujah! ringing round. One more night and we're free. They were wrong -- the fallout is nuclear, its devastating effects set to linger -- but the promise of liberation hung in the air.
The following night, Guardiola talked about "18 tremendously hard days." And he had reached the final. In Madrid, there were those whose anger and disappointment was laced with a relief that at least it was all over. Others felt the same way. The Clásico World Series always had the potential to turn nasty, to drag rather than delight, but this was worse than many imagined. At times it was plain unpleasant. A league, the Copa del Rey and a Champions League were decided (never mind the actual Wembley final: few in Spain have contemplated that yet). But what stuck in the mind was something else. As one journalist put it: "when my grandchildren ask me what I remember about this historic run of games, I'll say: 'erm, fights.'"
Fights. And faking. And worse. There have been bitter arguments and mutual accusations. Paranoia and whining. Cheating and assaults. Propaganda and politics. It has been turned into a crusade and it has been inescapable. Off the pitch as well as on it. Off the pitch, especially. On the pitch, tension and anxiety can help to explain (if not necessarily excuse) the way people act. Off it, there is less justification. Some of the behavior has been grotesque and many would feel ashamed if they weren't so shameless.
In some cases, that was predictable; in others, less so. Let's face it, we expected the passionately and self-interestedly partisan media to twist, lie and take sides, insisting that black is white and white is black. Lluis Mascaró's argument that "good" had defeated "evil" was pretty much standard from Sport's columnist. In essence if not words, other newspapers and media went down the same route, defending their team and attacking their rivals no matter what either did. That was foreseeable. Fewer anticipated that the clubs (especially Real Madrid), institutions that should know better and claim to know better, would act as they did.
Let's not be overly puritanical: edginess can sometimes add to the atmosphere, a little sparring. But mostly this lacked the bombastic charm, or the comedy, of a prize fight weigh-in. There were funny moments and occupation of the moral high was often exaggerated and unjustified. But this was mostly just nasty.
Many were left wondering whether a game of soccer might break out. It didn't really. With everyone watching, with the two best sides in the world, most were hugely disappointed. The image of Spanish soccer has not been enhanced. Not least because the two Champions League games have been taken, in isolation and unfairly, as a stick by which to measure the real level of these two teams and the Spanish league, to judge them and condemn them forever. As if there has never been an ugly game before -- here or elsewhere. One UK television channel even called the first leg of the Champions League semifinal the "game of shame."
There has been a desire to come up with a suitably cinematic name for this series. Cristiano Ronaldo, pointing an accusing finger at Barcelona, the refs and UEFA, called it Mission:Impossible IV. For a long time it felt like The Never Ending Tale. Or Much Ado About Nothing. It became The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, but with Clint Eastwood missing. There was no room for his character, Blondie. The Bad, the Ugly and the Hang on a Minute Where's Good Got To? The clásico series was Bad. It was Ugly. But where was the Good?
Where? Right here. Expectation was impossibly high, unmatchable, but at times it has been entertaining. Rare times, sure, but times. This series of games has left a bitter, unpleasant taste in many mouths and the reality is that it is good to leave it behind. But don't leave it this way. Why not cling to the good times, the beautiful and the funny? It hasn't been all Bad or all Ugly. There are things worth salvaging from the wreckage. Picking through the rubble, there is Good to be found too. So let's go find it ...
Scored one of the greatest goals the Champions League has witnessed. Some argued that with Pepe still on the pitch he would never have scored it and, who knows?, maybe he wouldn't have. After all, Pepe's job was largely to stop Messi. But it's not as if Messi -- who, by the way, suffered more fouls in the second leg, with Pepe gone, than anyone in the entire tournament -- had a clear run on goal. It is not as if he wasnt challenged and it is not as if he had no one to beat. It's not as if he hasn't done it before, either. It was his 52nd goal of the season (in 50 games, at the time). There seems to be an obsession with adding a "yeah, but" to Messi's extraordinary record. Many say: yeah, but would he do it in a league other than the Spanish league? Well, how about the Champions League? That's quite a difficult league, after all. Unless you're Messi. The goal put him on 11, just one off Ruud Van Nistelrooy's single-season record. Messi is the competition's top scorer for the third year in a row. He is also just 23.
After the second leg, a brave soul told Real Madrid's Iker Casillas that for all the whinging about the referee, if it had not been for his saves Barcelona would have been three- or four-nil anyway. To which Casillas replied: "well, yeah, but that's what a goalkeeper is there for."
Yes, diving. Good. Cheating is cultural. One of the most striking things about the reaction to this series of matches -- and in particular, the semifinal first leg -- is the colossal amount of attention trained on the playacting from Barcelona's players. Real Madrid even went so far as to denounce Barcelona's "premeditated anti-sporting behavior" to UEFA. Like no one ever dived before, right?
In some countries there has long been an obsession with diving and exaggerating as the worst thing in soccer. Worse, for some reason, than deliberately kicking someone even though a dive will never end a player's career. But not in Spain. For the English to be so critical of Barça's playacting, especially as many had not seen the context-setting Copa del Rey final, was normal. For Spain to follow suit was entirely new.
In Spain, diving has tended to be tolerated at worse, celebrated at best. Players are commended for "provoking" penalties, free kicks and cards. Soccer, we're constantly told, is a game for the streetwise. Then there is a more "honest" strand to the argument: why should a player stay up if he has been fouled? Why should you aid an aggressive opponent's approach by not denouncing it with a dive? (And that, incidentally, is the conclusion at which Barcelona arrived after the Cup final). Besides, even if a player cheats, he is not blamed: the referee is. The man who falls into the trap is guilty, not the man who lays it.
No one in Spain ever complained about diving, still less launched a crusade against it. Now they have. Madrid's protests about the theatrics of Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Dani Alves, and, later, Javier Mascherano were cynical and one-sided while the pitch, volume and consistency of the complaints was hard on your ears. The huge amount of noise ignored the dives of Real's Ronaldo or Angel Di María, the man who has "provoked" more penalties in the league than anyone else. But at least it has got this particular form of cheating on the Spanish agenda at last.
Others might have acted like total idiots, but they didn't. All the aggression, all the stirring, all the whinging and whining and false-sensibility, all the provocation. The hint of violence forever in the air, fermented by a media that then washed its hands and acted all innocent. And then you throw 25,000 Barcelona fans and 25,000 Real Madrid fans into the same city, add a bit of booze and crank up the tension. And what do they do? Have a great time, that's what.
If Messi's first leg strike was a moment of individual genius, Pedro's second leg one was a beautiful team goal. Iniesta's pass was fast, accurate and unstoppable and much the same can be said for Pedro's touch and finish. Blink and you'd miss it. Madrid's defense certainly did. But the best thing was that the whole move started with a gorgeously weighted, first-time curling pass to Dani Alves on the right.
By Víctor Valdés.
No, possession isn't everything. But, still. According to Opta, Xavi completed 633 passes over the four games. Six hundred and thirty-three, for goodness sake.
On the morning of the semifinal second leg, the Madrid-based newspaper AS led with "Ronaldo: now or never." Excuse me? Never? It is true that there is a sense that Ronaldo has not really dominated a huge game yet, but now or never? Ronaldo has won a Champions League before, scoring in the final (and missing his penalty). And, at 26, he will get other opportunities. On this occasion, Leo Messi once again performed better than him and there can surely be few now who cling to the argument that Ronaldo is better than Messi. According to Opta stats, over the four clásicos Messi scored three, Ronaldo two; Messi provided seven assists (without goals), Ronaldo none; and Messi completed 305 passes, Ronaldo 120. Messi is the best player in the world; Ronaldo may not even be the second best.
But to suggest this was his last chance is absurd. To dismiss him for what he did, partly a victim of a defensive approach, is equally unfair. He remains brilliant and, although it ended in elimination, what threat Madrid posed in the semifinal second leg largely came from Ronaldo: it was his dashing run that led to Gonzalo Higuaín's "goal." Similarly, while some saw petulance and foolishness in the first leg when he chased Barcelona's players down, screeching after the ball, turning to berate his teammates for not following him, it showed desire and drive. Besides, had they forgotten the Copa del Rey final? Had they forgotten the almost brutal beauty in his goal? The colossal leap, the straight back, the power. A perfect cross and the perfect header.
Gerard Piqué, Xabi Alonso, Álvaro Arbeloa:
At the end of the second leg, Dani Alves accused Real Madrid or being bad losers, noting that after the Cup final Barcelona had congratulated Madrid and after the Champions League semifinal Madrid had not congratulated them back. Around about the same time Casillas was busy saying: "when a team beats you well, you shake their hands and say 'well done' but not when it's like this." Not everyone took him on his word, though -- and the Spain coach Vicente del Bosque would have been particularly pleased. All the nastiness, all the bitterness, all the aggression, all the anger, all the disappointment, and as the final whistle at last went on this clásico series, Xabi Alonso and Álvaro Arbeloa approached the Barcelona players and shook their hands one by one. Just as Gerard Piqué had done after the Copa del Rey final.
It took Real Madrid 17 years to get its hands on the Copa del Rey. And barely a couple of hours to for it to slip out of them again. Sergio Ramos dropping the cup from the top deck and seeing the bus run over it, dragging it down the road, was priceless. Which, by the way, is more than can be said for the Cup. It costs an estimated €20,000 ($29,164).